Flying through time

Have you ever stopped to think about just how far personal computing has come in a relatively short period of time? It’s not something I do often, but I recently did just that, mainly thanks to a bad video card in my Mac Pro. “What?, what’s the relationship between the two?” you’re probably thinking. Let me explain.

Like my colleague Dan Frakes, I too had been experiencing video card problems with the ATI X1900XT in my Mac Pro. As long as I never pushed the card, everything was fine. But if I did something like try to play a bit of Need for Speed Carbon or X-Plane in my free time—or even use Quartz Composer to test some hints—the machine would usually lock up tight after some unpredictable amount of time. While there was no dust evident on the outside of my card, when I took off the heat sink, I found quite a bit of dust directly on the graphics processing chip (see the dust), which can’t be a good thing. Even after cleaning the dust out, my problems persisted. To make a long story short, I recently had the card replaced (with another ATI X1900XT), and then wanted to find some way to really test the new card and make sure it was working.

An aerial stress test

One of my favorite avocations is X-Plane, a multi-platform flight simulator—flying X-Plane is about as close as I’ll ever get to flying the “big iron,” and it’s a fun way to practice my instrument flying skills, which haven’t been exercised in the real world in a decade or so. So as a stress test, I thought I’d fire up X-Plane and have it fly between various airports while I went about my day’s work. With the old video card, this would lead to a guaranteed lockup, anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours after I started the program. As X-Plane includes autopilot features, I could do this with only a minimal amount of work on my part—basically program a destination in the autopilot, take off, start on course, then let the autopilot fly the route. I’d then fly the last few minutes of the arrival, and repeat the process for the next destination. So I launched at dawn from Boston’s Logan International Airport, set the destination for Bermuda (hey, might as well go somewhere nice!, and started flying.

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Once the autopilot had the plane on course, I went back to work. And so it went through the day—from Bermuda I headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, then flew a short hop to the island of Bonaire (best shore scuba diving on the planet, I’ve heard), followed by a long leg to Guatemala City, a super-long segment up to Los Angeles, and finally, a late-evening flight home to Portland, Oregon. In all, that route covered something like 6,700 statute miles and who knows how much flying time (in a simulated Boeing 757).

While X-Plane was doing all this (in a 1024x1024 window), I had my usual slate of other programs running. Firefox and Safari were running, for web browsing and posting hints. Photoshop CS2 was open for working on images. Mail for email. Add in Stickies, Terminal, iTunes, iChat, Smultron, System Preferences, iCal, and iPhoto, and that’s more or less what’s always running on my machine. Beyond the foreground applications, there were the regular background tasks as well—Time Machine was backing the system up every hour, Butler was waiting in the background for me to ask it to do something, TypeIt4Me was expanding my typed shortcuts to save my fingers, .Mac sync was doing its thing, and who knows how many system processes were also running.

So how did the experiment go? Absolutely flawlessly. The machine never hiccuped—even when I burned a couple of music CDs while listening to iTunes, everything was fine. Granted I never did anything like ripping a DVD or burning a home movie with iDVD while X-Plane was running, though I expect those tasks would have worked just fine, too. But it was this “so what else you got?” performance from the Mac Pro that really got me thinking about just how far we’ve come since the days of the Apple II and the dawn of consumer flight simulation.

Given my interest in aviation, it only seemed natural to look at the evolution of the home computer (the Apple home computer in particular) as seen through the eyes of its flight simulators. Even if you’re not interested in flight simulation, however, it’s interesting to realize just how much things have changed in 30 years or so. At the end, I’ll provide a final surprise element that, I think, demonstrates just how far we’ve come over that time.

Exponential evolution

The first true consumer flight simulator was SubLogic’s Flight Simulator, which was released for the Apple II in January of 1980. I’m old enough to remember using this program, and being simply blown away by the graphics, the ability to fly a plane on the computer, and the real sense of flight that it provided. In many ways, it’s probably what drove me to go on to earn my private pilot’s license years later. The graphics, as you can see, were stunning (click for a larger image):

OK, I’m kidding about that “stunning” part. But for 1980, this was groundbreaking, so to speak. The left image above is the view down the runway. In the image at right, the plane is flying at just over 8,000 feet with a mountain visible in the foreground (bottom right corner), as well as a bridge over the river (the white jumble over the all-black strip in mid-screen).

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What I remember most about this game is that the frame rate was downright awful. While I don’t remember the exact figure, the ad at right for the TRS-80 version of the game promises a whopping three frames per second, so the Apple II version probably wasn’t all that much higher. Even at that, it was obvious the computer was doing just about all it was capable of doing to get those frames on the screen. Also, the world was tiny—you can actually see the “end of the Earth” in the right-hand image; fly past that, and you just went off into blackness. The only reason this world size worked was because you were flying a very slow Sopwith Camel.

SubLogic released a second-generation (color) version of Flight Simulator for the Apple II in 1983; it was much better than its predecessor, featuring a much larger world, multiple airports, and a more realistic panel. In 1984, Apple released the Mac, which wouldn’t run Apple II software. So in 1986, SubLogic came out with Flight Simulator I for the Mac—which, confusingly, was actually “Flight Simulator III,” as it built off the advances in the second release for the Apple II. However, as seen below, one thing was lost in the new version—color, as the original Macs lacked color support. Seen below is the out-the-window view sitting on the runway at Meigs Field in Chicago in Flight Simulator I for the Mac:

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There were, of course, many other improvements behind the scenes. The world was much larger, there were 120 airports, there were navigation aids, more planes, and much more. I recall decent but not great frame rates, though definitely better than that of the Apple II version. Five long years passed, and in 1991 with the advent of System 7, Microsoft released what turned out to be its final Mac flight simulator: Flight Simulator 4 for Mac. Color returned, there were more airports, dynamic scenery, and much better simulation of flight. Here’s a view of Meigs Field from above, with some Chicago buildings in the background, including the Sears tower:

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Things are starting to look pretty good at this point, though only the fastest Macs of the day were able to run Flight Simulator 4 with decent frame rates. And you’d certainly never try to do anything like run multiple programs at once (new in System 7) alongside Flight Simulator 4. When you wanted to fly, that’s all you did.

When Microsoft left the market, there was a void in the Mac general flight sim market for many years—Fly! was decent but suffered from slow frame rates and odd looking scenery, and while F/A-18 Hornet and Hellcats over the Pacific were good simulations, they were military, not civilian. I did most of my desktop flying during these years on PCs running Windows, where Flight Simulator continued to receive regular updates.

Where we’re at today

To keep this discussion somewhat short, I’m going to hit the super fast forward button now, jumping all the way up to my recent video card stress test with X-Plane. (If you’re at all interested in the history of consumer flight simulation, this Wikipedia page is a good place to start, and this site—though not updated in a few years—contains a history of the SubLogic/Microsoft Flight Simulator series on both the Mac and the PC.)

During the sixteen-year gap I just fast-forwarded through, home computers made incredible gains in all areas—CPU speed, memory, hard drive capacity, and graphics processing. The end result of all that progress is evident in both the successful stress test I put my machine through, and in this single screenshot of X-Plane 9 (click for a larger version):

That’s basically the equivalent shot of the Meigs Field takeoff as seen above in Flight Simulator I for the Mac. Notice all the details that are now modeled—the panel of the plane is realistic; there are puffy clouds in the sky; 3D buildings in the skyline; skid marks on the runway; and though not visible, a fully functional weather system (see the same shot as above in rain or snow), air traffic control, random equipment failures, and multiple aircraft including gliders, small single-engine planes, business jets, commercial airliners, and military aircraft.

Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is the size of X-Plane’s world—it’s literally the entire world (and more, as they’ve included a space shuttle simulation as well as the ability to fly on Mars!). You can take off from Chicago, set the destination to Rio de Janeiro, and X-Plane will update the scenery between the two spots in real time as you fly. Of course, all this comes at a cost—a full installation of X-Plane will eat up something north of 70GB of your hard drive.

The visuals in X-Plane are simply stunning as static images; the fact that they can be displayed on my screen at anywhere from 25fps to 50fps while my machine is running a handful of additional programs really demonstrates just how much power we have available in today’s machines. Sure, you need a high-end Mac with lots of RAM to get performance like this—but the tab for such a machine is somewhere around $3,000 today. Back in 1991, the killer Flight Simulator 4.0 machine was the Macintosh IIfx. If you wanted to drop one of those on your desk, you’d be looking at a $10,000+ investment—or about $16,000 in today’s dollars! It really is incredible to pause for a moment and see just how far we’ve come—both in terms of price and performance—in a relatively short amount of time.

Oh, about that surprise revelation? Here’s the secret…with one exception (Flight Simulator 4), the screenshots you see here were all taken while the program was actually running on my Mac Pro—and while X-Plane itself was also running. Yawn, you’re thinking, there are lots of Apple and Mac simulators for OS X, no big deal. Well, the trick here is that the simulators I used are all running in Windows XP, which is in turn running in VMWare Fusion on OS X. So while X-Plane was running, I was also running another operating system, and within that operating system, emulating two other operating systems and then programs within those operating systems. I think that, even more than the X-Plane stress test, demonstrates more than anything just how far we’ve come since the days of the Apple II.

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